Alive & Going HomebyRumple Foreskin©
The ear-splitting explosion was followed by loud shouts. "What the hell was that? Where'd it come from? Is everybody all right?" In the opinion of Specialist Fourth Class Mark "Bear" Carson, this was not a good way to spend Thanksgiving.
The plan had called for the recon platoon to leave the shelter of the jungle-like wood line and cross a large expanse of dry rice paddies to a village suspected of being a Viet Cong staging area. If everything was slick, the infantry company and the troop of armored personnel carriers left back in the safety of the wood line would then move out and join them.
For the officer in charge of the operation, the plan had the advantage of protecting the men in his own company while risking a handful of troops. Viet Nam was a numbers war. If recon was shot up, the casualties wouldn't be figured against his unit's body count.
It was a scheme the men of recon knew all too well. They were the eyes and ears of the battalion and experts at operating alone on intelligence gathering operations. Ambushes, snatches, tracking, manning listening posts at night and observation posts during the day were all considered good missions.
No one thought today's assignment, serving as scouts for a regular infantry company, was a good mission. They were now under the direct control of another unit's commanding officer. Whenever that happened, they became expendable.
Halfway to the village, a sudden, high-pitched shriek ended in a sickening explosion and a geyser of dirt, smoke, and death. Unable to tell where the fire was coming from, they had to dive for the only available cover and then pray the low rice paddy dike was between them and death. "What the hell was that? Where's that son-of-bitch? Is everybody all right?"
A second explosion landed closer as small arms fire erupted from the village. From his position near the platoon's Lieutenant, Mark shifted the bulky radio on his back and tried to force himself to lift his head and search for the enemy.
"That thing's gotta be a goddamn recoilless rifle, Lieutenant," shouted "Hardcore" Harding, the unit's veteran platoon sergeant.
"Roger that, shit. You got any idea where the hell it's firing from?" Lieutenant Lester never stopped scanning the surrounding terrain.
"Can't be sure, sir. But they've probably got it set up on that hill over there on our right flank."
Dale Lester glanced at the hill, and then looked around. His platoon, a group he and Hardcore had carefully molded into a first class recon unit, was pinned down in the open. Meanwhile, Delta Company and the supporting armored personnel carriers were back in the wood line and didn't seem anxious to risk exposing themselves by providing fire support.
"It's time for a command decision, Bear," said Lester, speaking to the man he'd pulled from second squad that morning to act as his radio operator. Mark Carson, whose size had earned him the nickname, wiped sweat and dirt from his face and nodded.
"If we stay put and call in for help, that recoilless rifle will pick us all off," said Lester, speaking more to himself than to Mark. "Heading toward that automatic weapons fire is out of the question. So that leaves only….
"Don't sweat trying to spot it," Lester yelled at Hardcore. "Let's get our butts outta here."
Always open to sound military advice, Hardcore rose into a crouch and yelled for first squad to provide covering fire while the rest of the platoon began moving back to the trees. Dale Lester and his new radio operator rose and looked around.
First squad fired into the village while the rest of the unit scrambled to its feet. The sound of another incoming round sent everyone diving back for cover. It exploded along the base of the dike being used by second squad, Mark's squad, the squad of Sergeant Phillip Andrews.
Red headed, freckle-faced Andy Andrews, Mark's friend and squad leader, son of Mr. and Mrs. Carl P. Andrews, brother of Paul and Joyce, Kim Irving Andrew's husband, and father of their three month old daughter Kacey, was killed instantly when members of the North Vietnamese Army manning a recoilless rifle, scored a direct hit on his position.
In the next few weeks, getting killed or wounded became commonplace. A week later, Fred "Hassle" Castle, a quiet brother from Mississippi, became the next to die. Back during Mark's first day in the field, the unit ran into a sniper. While expertly firing his M-79 grenade launcher, Hassle casually yanked the inexperienced Mark out of the line of fire.
The day Hassle died, the platoon had captured a man who appeared to be a Viet Cong. The helicopters, which were supposed to return the unit to base, never arrived. Therefore everyone, including the prisoner, was on foot, "humping it," back.
Moving across a small, open area, Hassle stepped on a thin trip-wire. There was a small bang and a can filled with tiny steel pellets shot into the air, then exploded at chest height. It was hard to believe how many holes that "Bouncing Betty" drilled into Hassle's dark, wiry, young body.
And the casualties just kept coming. "Hump," the unit's point man, caught a grenade fragment in the gut. "Fearless" Frank stepped on a punji stake. Lt. Lester got a leg chewed up during a mortar attack. Then it was the turn of Tony Doughty and, moments later, Mark.
The platoon should have been in position near the top of the hill long before sun-up. They were supposed to spend the day observing yet another suspected VC village. There was also a plan for Mark, who by now was an acting squad leader, to take his unit back down the hill and set up an ambush along a trail which led to the village. As happens, they were running late when the platoon approached the crest of Hill 87.
The first light of dawn was only minutes away when Mark's squad led the rest of the platoon to the top of a low, scrub-brush covered hill that rose like a canker from the surrounding rice paddies. Stepping out of line, he waved for the squad to keep moving. By then the new lieutenant had come up. Mark asked if he wanted to call off the ambush. "We'll see." he replied. "Right now, get your men in position, then check back with me."
The squad had continued walking past Mark while he spoke with the new lieutenant. By the time he rejoined them Mark was third in line instead of first. It would be a crucial difference.
Just as he opened his mouth to give an order to set up a defensive perimeter, the man who was now first in line stepped on a booby-trap. Tony Doughty was a big, pug-nosed, good-natured guy from Tennessee--so new to the unit he hadn't picked up a nickname. His large body was now dancing in mid-air as a sheet of flame, laced with white streaks, raced toward Mark. It was the last thing he'd see clearly for months.
When the force of the explosion slammed into him, Mark struggled to stay on his feet, worried that he might fall onto another booby-trap. Then his knees gave out and he crumpled onto the ground.
After spitting out a mouthful of dirt, Mark made a quick, unsuccessful search for his rifle. While reaching for his canteen, he discovered his pistol still in its holster. Knowing he still had the .38 Special made him feel better. The VC seldom took prisoners and when they did, they were always tortured to death.
Checking over his body for wounds, Mark felt something warm and wet around his groin. His growing sense of panic passed when he discovered it was only urine, not blood.
The blast had caught him from the waist up. There were tiny pieces of metal and gravel in his arms, chest, and face. Raw powder burns covered his face and he couldn't see. But even with all those injuries, Mark knew he'd been lucky.
Had they been on time, there would have been no reason to step out of line and talk to the lieutenant. Had they been on time, he would have remained in the lead spot. Had they been on time, he would have been the one who stepped on the booby-trap. Had they been on time, he'd be dead.
The cries of wounded soldiers quickly replaced the sound of exploding booby traps. In front of him, someone was moaning, "Crotch, crotch, crotch." Grabbing his canteen, Mark rinsed out his mouth and then started crawling toward the moans.
As the eastern sky began to lighten, the casualties turned into statistics. Two men were dead, three more were stretcher cases, and eight others, including Mark, were wounded but able to walk. The danger of a VC ambush was over. Now the wounded needed to be moved down to a safe, flat spot where medivac helicopters could safely pick them up.
Eventually, somebody linked Mark up with "Cowboy" Thompson. The platoon's quietly efficient machine gunner had gotten his right leg messed up. "Cowboy" could see, but couldn't walk. Mark could walk, but not see. Arm-in-arm, the lame soldier and the blind soldier began helping one another down the hill.
"Helluva way to be spending Christmas eve, ain't it, Bear?"
Mark stopped as his mind flashed on an image of Mary Beth Riser stretched out nude and luscious on the back seat of his old Chevy. They'd screwed practically every day during the two weeks he was home on leave last Christmas. In his pocket was the letter she'd just sent telling him all about breaking up with her latest boyfriend.
"Cowboy, things could be worse. It's Christmas eve, we're alive, and going home. Let's celebrate."
They started walking again, away from their war, as their ragged version of "Jingle Bells" floated over the low scrub brush and body bags.